- You truly get to know what is going on in your business at the coalface, where you get your hands dirty and see things first hand.
- You can’t see the wood from the trees on the ground; leaders need to be able to choose which forest they chop in.
Aside from a few mixed metaphors and some outdated references to chopping trees (?), I see a dilemma for leaders. Is it best to lead from the front (by example) at the coalface, or to have a helicopter view? A mix of both?
As early as the 1970’s, Royal Dutch Shell company was referring to its leaders as employing a helicopter view to their operations. The premise goes that only when seeing things from a distance, objectively, do fully appreciate all the machinations at play within an organisation, and can make decisions from a global perspective. This view does have some pluses and minuses for leaders in the field. On the plus side, thinking from a ‘helicopter perspective’ forces you out of the weeds (and often the urgent and important) and forces you to think more globally, to what is often important but not urgent. The strategic focus provides better long term planning and thinking beyond the day to day; it is also often associated with being a more senior leader in a business (although the process can be applied at all levels). On the minus side, staying purely in a helicopter view takes you away from the day to day reality for most of your staff, and you can lose touch of what is changing and taking place at the most important place for your business – where your front line staff meets the customer. If the focus is on long-term thinking it isn’t on immediate decisions, which can result in decision delays and loss of communication. Too much focus on the helicopter view can be seen as living in an ‘ivory tower’.
The firefighting view is at the coalface of the operation in a business; its focus is on immediacy, up to the minute decisions for frontline staff. The focus is often on the urgent and important (rather than important and not urgent) and is also seen as a clear demonstration of leading by example. The ‘lead from the front’ and ‘do as I do’ model is interchangeably linked to both the role of supervisor, manager and leader. It is seen both favourably for those attributing action with leadership, and seen negatively by those seeing it more as manager than leader.
The immediacy of decisions and the ability to lead from the front (through values in action) are seen as pluses. The minus is that too much time firefighting takes the focus off the strategic direction of the business.
A happy medium? The Elevator View of Leadership
There are obvious strengths to leading from both the helicopter and firefighting view of leadership. What seems apparent is the trap of staying in one view for too long, or placing a bias on one over the other – particularly if one view is seen as leading and the other is seen as managing (the distinction of which I believe is a navel-gazing exercise best left to academics and of no real use in the operational / practical world of leading).
Think of your leadership activity as being on an elevator – at which floor I am going to serve my self / team / business best right at this moment. There will be times when leading from the front is the most appropriate thing to do – in a crisis, when correct behaviours are less clear and when decisions need to be made quickly. Press the button for the bottom floor and do what needs to be done. Equally, stepping back and taking a more objective view of a situation may be what the team and business needs for a more strategic and objective view. Press the button for the top floor and assess with a greater perspective.
Ken Blanchard stated that ‘effective leaders adjust their style to provide what the group can’t provide for itself’. The elevator perspective of leadership provides just that, if the leader is aware enough to adjust their view for best advantage.
So how do you know if you are leading at the right level?
- Are you doing something that someone else can do right now? If so, are you doing it to demonstrate a correct way, better way or new way? If not, and you are just doing the same thing as your team to the same level, you are at the wrong level – get out of the way and let them do their job.
- Use the urgent / important matrix and see where most of your tasks fall. If you have only been working in the Not Urgent / Important quadrant, chances are you may be out of touch with what is going on with your customer facing staff. Too much time in the Urgent / Important quadrant may mean longer term thinking is being left behind.
- If you are listening, your team will tell you. ‘I feel micromanaged’ and comments like it are a clear sign that the leader is spending too much time firefighting and not providing enough space for their team to work. Comments about ‘head office’, not being seen or being out of touch are signs you are spending too long in the helicopter view.
Elevator leadership requires a keen sense of knowing both your skills and your purpose as a leader, and the desire to place yourself at the best place for the business at any given time. Knowing which floor to press, when to stay and when to move to a new floor is a skill worth learning, bridging the gap between what is traditionally seen as either leadership or management.
What level is your default floor setting when you lead? What impact does staying at your preferred level have on you, our team and your business?